Cover Story - Oct 2006

Steve Wallace: He’s Our Man

By: Meridith May

Patterson’s 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Steve Wallace proves Merlot can be at its finest when paired to a “Wally dog.” Sit, Petrus, sit.

Everyone has an anecdotal yarn about how they got started in the business. Many sagas begin in the family store or restaurant, while others may have taken shape during harvests or during enrollment in culinary school.
Steve Wallace was ushered in to the business, by chance. Fate tapped him on the shoulder, threw him into the foray and shouted, “Do it! Here’s your big opportunity!”

Not Your Typical Valet Boy
“Courtesy is our most important product” – Slogan from Steve Wallace’s valet car parking company, circa mid-1960s.

Steve Wallace, circa 1945, taken at the Beverly Hills Hotel

From the time he was in high school, Steve Wallace had a business. Parking cars. As a valet car parker, he had the where-with-all to create car park concessions at restaurants. In the 1970’s, destiny brought his services to the Daisy Club, a chic private Disco in Beverly Hills.

“I was 21 years old, and the fellow that ran the club comes out and asks me to manage the Club. Just like that,” Wallace told Patterson’s.

As the new Manager of the Daisy Club, Wallace claims he was “forced” to buy wine and spirits, and to further enhance his knowledge on the subject, enrolled in classes at UCLA, where his professor, the one and only Robert Balzer, inspired him to pursue the wine side of the business.

Learning the Ropes
The dawn of Napa’s wine industry found Steve Wallace in its path time and again. “I would travel to Napa quite often in the late sixties,” he said. “Not a lot of wineries then, but what I saw and experienced left me with a lasting impression.”

Developing a vision for a wine shop of his own, Wallace confronted his parents for start-up money. My father’s answer was, “Go get a job. He insisted I work for someone else – learn the business side first.”
With stints working for Harold Gelman at Angel’s Corner and King Cellars, Wallace received an enduring education. “Gelman was tough, but he knew his stuff.”

After a year of learning the ropes, Wallace went back to his parents. They were duly impressed with their son’s enthusiasm and their faith in him motivated them to mortgage the house for the funds to get him started.
By the time Steve Wallace was 25, he had his own store, and his parents worked side by side with him for ten years at locations in Toluca Lake and West L.A. He eventually bought out their interest and acquired the real estate that is now home to Wally’s, on Westwood Boulevard.

Expansion, Progress and the Good Old Days
With his motto, “Value, Quality, Service,” Steve Wallace has earned the reputation for a store that provides innovative, cutting edge technology to keep operations smooth and support his huge customer base.

In addition to the wildly popular retail end, Wally’s has expanded into building a public storage facility and has entered into the wine auction foray with Zachy’s, the largest wine auction house in the U.S. The New York-based company took additional roots in L.A., and asked Wally’s to joint venture with them twice a year. Since then, the auction is held three times a year at the Peninsula Hotel, and to date, Wally’s has succeeded in selling the most expensive bottle of wine on the auction block: $22,000.

Wally’s Internet site offers education and direct ordering for customers, run by a six-person, in-house IT department. The design team also creates seasonal brochures, newsletters and catalogs.

“We are now in the good old days of the business,” muses Wallace, who sees present time as the best the industry has ever witnessed. “Forty years ago, the industry wasn’t looked at as it is now; it was the ‘liquor business’ and alcohol was considered the evil spirit. Now, if you’re in the beverage industry, you’re a rock star.”

Considered a brand builder, Wallace and his team sets industry standards and is a presence to be reckoned with. Steve Wallace likens his success to something he heard from his friend Sidney Frank. “We weren’t always the biggest, but our success lies in placing brands in the right hands.”

In line with partner Christian Navarro, the “wine therapist to the stars,” Wally’s philosophy is to believe in the product first. The line-up of celebrity clients include movie stars, athletes and the biggest name in rock ‘n roll, many of whom send personal notes, endorsing the brands that they bought from the store from Navarro, Gary Fishman or any of the knowledgeable sales crew.

Steve Wallace with his business partner, Christian Navarro

This is Just the Beginning
“When I leave the store at night, I go back to work,” quips Wallace, whose common ground with many of us in the business is to never stop working. Involved financially in five Los Angeles restaurants, Wallace is also on the board for the Los Angeles County Fair and Los Angeles Times and Sonoma Co Fair wine judging panels, and a board member of the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center to name a few.

Steve Wallace’s awards adorn the halls and offices at Wally’s, recognized by everyone from Wine Spectator to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino and the European Wine Council.

“We’re in a turning point, and I think these times will be regarded as the glamour days for the wine and spirits industry,” Wallace reiterated, with much enthusiasm. “The beverage industry is becoming a part of our culture. This is just the beginning.”

Did You Know that Steve Wallace is a Partner in these Restaurants?
*CAPO – Santa Monica
*Brentwood Restaurant & Lounge
*Brass Cap – Santa Monica
*Broadway Deli – Santa Monica
*Cora’s Coffee Shop – Santa Monica

Alice Waters shares a recipe with Steve Wallace in his kitchen

Steve with daughter Melissa Wallace and grandson Nicholas Wallace and daughter Jennifer Ostrow with Max and Miles Ostrow

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